It's a mistake to make the older generation the voice on how to lead young people

August 19, 2022

5 minute read

It's a mistake to make the older generation the voice on how to lead young people

The older generation is often the voice on how to lead young people. That is a mistake, writes Julius Gabel Nørgaard, co-founder of COPUS.

The other day I read a debate article in Berlingske on how to best lead young people. The author of the article was 60 years old. Not long ago, Jesper Theil Thomsen, SOUNDBOKS' 27-year-old CEO, also wrote a post on LinkedIn about how a commission, consisting entirely of grey-haired members, came up with proposals on behalf of the younger generation – without any involvement or input from those it was all about.

I see a trend where the older generation is the voice of how best to lead the younger generation, and I find this a bit of a paradox.

I want to share thoughts on how we approach leading young people at COPUS. I am 26, and my 22-year-old partner and I started the agency in 2017 with the dream of creating a workplace and culture we could find ourselves gravitating towards.

Lead by example

The agency industry - which often prides itself on being young and creative - is still primarily run by grey-haired men. This might be because many still believe that age and the years of experience on your CV equal your ability to teach and evolve young people.

Studies from the boomer generation point in the other direction. One study, 'The Experience Trap', highlights that experienced leaders stop learning at a certain age. They particularly struggle with complex projects that require learning-by-doing where both the objectives and scope of the project can change along the way.

New technologies and constantly evolving social platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok, are often incompatible with a management team stuck in a mindset of "how we 'used' to do things".

At COPUS, we strive to cultivate a work culture that can best be described as a 'Growth Culture', where curiosity, training and learning never stop at any level in the organisation. Combined with a young team that has grown up with today's technologies and platforms, it helps us stay ahead of the curve and feel inspired in our daily lives.

"Leading a young team doesn't come without challenges. Young people have high demands towards leaders."

It's no longer enough to have a certain title, rank or experience. It is also about leading by example, setting the direction and leading through your values, attitude and credibility.

Young people want to be seen, heard, recognised and given responsibility. They (we) want to work with daily sparring and feedback through which we can develop. We want meaningful work — flexibility to work from home, be part of a great community, and be successful at what we do. We quickly get FOMO and become uncomfortable if we are not involved in every decision. At the same time, we have very little patience, rigid structures and cumbersome processes.

Generation Z

We, the young people, can sometimes be so focused on succeeding that we forget the big picture because there is so much we want to achieve. It is the leader's responsibility to ensure the team's larger mission is communicated clearly. It is often not so important to know who has the most stripes on their shoulders, but everyone must know what position they play on the field. Role assignment, not in terms of titles but in terms of responsibilities, is more important than ever.

At COPUS, we have gotten help with role allocation from our board and our assigned coach. We also draw a lot of inspiration from Brene Brown and her principles on vulnerable leadership and how daring to be honest as a leader can accelerate development. We combine this with a collaboration with FirstMind and their personality profiles. This allows us to better understand our talents and where we find our energy so we can play well off each other as a team.

I think some people go wrong when they are suddenly on an HR mission to embrace more young people. They hire a bunch of young people and make some superficial changes like implementing a youth advisory board. But the core of the culture remains the same. It still comes as a surprise when the young people move elsewhere a year later. The company made an effort, so what went wrong?

Ultimately, it is about people and putting together a team who matches each other well. All teams can benefit from diversity - including age. Young ambition and curiosity can be a great cocktail combined with experience and networks. To embrace multiple generations in your agency, start by working on culture. And remember to involve those it matters to the most - the young folks.

Disclaimer: This opinion piece was first published in Markedsføring, 2022